Murray's Illinois mine has 2,787 violations since 2005
Crandall Canyon mine owner Robert Murray is fond of saying he cares deeply for his workers and "takes their safety to bed every night."
But his record at one Illinois mine in particular might cause some lost sleep.
Murray's Galatia mine in southern Illinois racked up at least 2,787 violations and more than $2.4 million in proposed fines from the Mine Safety and Health Administration over a two-year span, according to government records. That includes more than $1.4 million in proposed fines already this year.
(Murray routinely challenges government fines and many are now on appeal. He has paid $588,000 and is delinquent on $116,000.)
"That would really raise a red flag to me if I was an inspector going to those mines," said Bruce Dial, a former federal mine safety officer.
In June, in a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Murray angrily defended his company's safety record when it was challenged by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"My employees are important to me and I take their safety to bed every night," Murray said, waving his finger at Boxer. "My safety record today is one of the best in the coal industry."
At the Crandall Canyon mine, which Murray purchased last August, the safety record has been solid. Under Murray's ownership, there have been 64 violations and $12,973 in fines proposed.
Murray said those citations were for things as trivial as not having toilet paper in the restrooms.
But his other mines have been the subject of a federal lawsuit over concealed safety violations, have been closed by state regulators and have experienced accident rates in some cases several times the national average.
All the while, Murray's companies have resisted increases in civil penalties for mine violations, opposed safety measures proposed after the Sago mine disaster and have sued the governor of Pennsylvania for ordering a mine there to close.
Nowhere is Murray's companies' safety record more dismal than Galatia, the southern Illinois mine Murray bought in 1998, which has piled up 2,787 violations since June 2005. Of those, 660 violations were considered significant and substantial, meaning the hazard could "result in an injury or illness of a reasonably serious nature." MSHA issued 94 orders requiring safety issues to be fixed immediately.
But in recent months, the fines mounted, as inspectors found that American Coal Company, a Murray subsidiary, failed to take prompt action to fix the problems found at the mine.
"This was really bad. It raises those red flags," said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of the publication Mine Safety and Health News, who reported on the high fines at the Illinois mine last month. "Galatia, when you look at that record, it kind of stands out and you go, 'What's wrong here?' "
American Coal Company is contesting $617,039 in fines and more than $1 million in fines have been proposed, but the company has not yet responded, so those figures may be reduced.
Galatia also has an accident rate above the national average - in 2003 more than twice the national average - for comparable mines since Murray bought it, although the accident rate has fallen in recent years.
The Powhatan Mine in Ohio has, likewise, had an accident rate above the national average in nine of the past 13 years.
In 2003, four mine officials and KenAmerican Resources Inc., another Murray subsidiary, were convicted of 10 counts of illegally using improper ventilation, using two continuous mining machines and lying to federal investigators about the practice.
KenAmerican was ordered to pay a $306,000 fine. The Justice Department appealed, asking for a harsher penalty, but an appeals court rejected the request.
In 2002, Murray vented his frustration at Tim Thompson, an MSHA district manager who had cracked down on safety issues at Murray's Powhatan mine.
In the meeting with top MSHA officials, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Murray cited his friendship with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the husband of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao who oversees MSHA and demanded Thompson be removed. He was reassigned and later retired.
Murray has sparred in court with Pennsylvania state regulators. He has appealed several fines and citations relating to damage done to water supplies or buildings, according to Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania environmental department.
In October, Murray sued Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell after the state refused to permit his Maple Creek mine, fearing it would disrupt a river.
Maple Creek was a small mine, but MSHA records show eight people were injured at the mine in 2004 before it shut down, a rate eight times the average for a mine its size.